Language

The Language Comprehension Continuum

Below is an example of communication error — Penn and Teller use strong emotional language and delivery to hide the true meaning of the message. In context — a pretty young woman anxiously and passionately asking individuals at a faire to protect the environment — signing the petition makes sense. People sign many petitions. And the more people sign (or the more signatures they see on the petition), the more likely others sign as well. A woman, seemingly in distress over an environmental problem, inspires an emotional reaction — people want to help. We have a built-in social value system that encourages this kind of behavior. And finally there’s a strong p-prim that all chemicals are bad — so just hearing a chemical compound in a petition gets a response from the crowd. The result? On the language comprehension continuum, these faire goers didn’t do so well…

Words, Language, Influence, & Design

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of language. Sure, there have been a lot of news relating to language (election, after all, is only a few months away): legitimate rape is one example of powerful words/phrases in the news. But I would like to briefly explore how words and language can influence the design and use of a product. Language Development It might be interesting to start really early (or to look to unusual cases of individuals without language). The following program by RadioLab does a wonderful job of introducing language and the development of comprehension: Words that Change the World. This half-hour audio show presents the work of Susan Schaller, Charles Fernyhough, Elizabeth Spelke, and James Shapiro. Susan describes a case of a deaf 27 year old man who was never taught language and his journey to comprehension. Charles describes an experiment where babies, kids, and rats are asked to find items in a blank room after a brief disorientation. He discovers that language is essential to linking concepts in our brain. Elizabeth explores the benefits of language farther. And James, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia University, talks about the use of language to communicate complex…

Flattery — the Social Lubricant

Gentle Readers, As you have been undoubtably aware for some time, this blog aims for audience with well above average vocabulary and IQ. You and your fellow readers are a very select group with strong interest in science and product design. You are scientists, engineers, and intellectuals. You have an amazing sense of style and fashion. You are able to see patterns and spot details that escape most of those around you. How do I know? I can see the strong engagement with the material on this blog — it’s all there in black and white numbers provided helpfully by Google day in and out. Some of you might think this letter cynical. But all of you know that this content appeals directly your amygdala — you are as happy to be recognized for your brilliance as I’m for your continued readership of my writing. You all know you are special, and you want to be acknowledged as such by those around you. And not only are you all above average, you are also extraordinarily lucky. Some might call this the “optimism bias”, but you and I know that your chances of success are much higher than the average Joe…

Thinking about the Science of Communication and Interaction

Alien Senses

In the Galaxy Far Far Away… What if sentient being evolved on a planet with permanent cloud cover? What if these being never saw stars? Would they still be able to discover the laws of nature? These kinds of hypothetical thinking questions — the Gedankan Experiments, as Einstein put it — are very useful in science. I’ll try to use them here for analyzing product design and communication. So what senses do we need to communicate? And what body appendages are necessary to produce this communication? Note that it helps keep track of these separately. Aroma-bet When I was little, I “designed” a language based on smell: each smell was assigned a character in an alphabet and, strung together in sequence, my smelly letters transcribed into words — the Aroma-bet. There were several problems with this: It was difficult to get an alphabet-worth of distinct odors; Arranged next to each other, the odors started to blend into each other, making “reading” difficult; I got a very bad headache; My mom didn’t like her expensive perfumes used in such a creative way… And I couldn’t remember what letter each smell stood for, requiring the creation of a smell-o-dictionary, which in turn…

The Haptic Feel of Books versus eBooks

We’ve traveled to Rome for our family vacation this year, and aside from a few summer reading books that I couldn’t find in an eBook format, we relied on our two Kindles and 3 iPads for our family reading needs. This is the second summer we brought primarily electronic versions of books—”The Count of Monte Cristo” is much easier to read when it fits into your hand and doesn’t weigh a ton… In the days before the Kindle and iPad, we carried an extra suitcase just for books. But there are drawbacks to buying and reading eBooks. Below are some of my thoughts and experiences—the cogitations of a voracious reader. Time & Progress As I was reading my novels, I found myself repeatedly trying to figure out where in the book I was. How far along was I? When is the next natural break (chapter, section end)? How many pages are there to the end of the chapter, end of the section, end of the book? These were not idle curiosities about my reading accomplishments, although when you do finish reading the book version of “The Count of Monte Cristo”, you do have a sense of having read something. An…

Language-learning expertise

Landau, E. (2010). “From brain to language to accent.”  CNN Online. Retrieved on October 4, 2010: http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/23/from-brain-to-language-to-accent/?hpt=Sbin Becoming a proficient speaker of at least one language is a hallmark of the typical human psychological development. When it comes to learning more than one language, however, our abilities seem much more widely dispersed. Why might some people display a greater “talent” for learning a second language (or more) than others? By far the best known predictor of success at foreign language learning is the learner’s age.  An increasing number of children who grow up in bilingual environments from early on may well grow up to be fluent speakers of both their native languages. But you don’t have to be natively bilingual in order to master multiple languages at the native-speaker level. In a classic study of second-language acquisition by Johnson & Newport (1989), immigrants to the USA were tested for high-level mastery of English (including phonetic and grammatical nuances), and the results were examined as a function of age at initial immersion in the English-speaking environment. People who started learning English before the age of 7 tended to achieve native-like proficiency. From there on, the older one was at arrival, the less native…

Language and thought in user-centered design

Deutscher, G. (2010). “Does language shape the way you think?”  New York Times Online Edition. Retrieved on October 4, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html This article summarizes the history and the current status of the linguistic relativity hypothesis or the idea that “language shapes thought.” This idea comes in several different formulations. The version on which Deutscher’s review focuses is a cross-linguistic claim that speakers of different languages use different mental representations or processes as a result of having learned different languages as children. A particularly strong version of the cross-linguistic hypothesis suggests that our native language provides us with a basic toolbox of conceptual representation, so if a concept or a mode of thought is not encoded in a given language, its monolingual speakers would be incapable of thinking about such a concept or thinking in such a mode.  For instance, linguistic relativity led to the prediction that people’s perception of differences in color should reflect the way their language encodes color.  This prediction was spectacularly disproven by the discovery that people whose language only has two color terms in its vocabulary perceive and categorize colors similarly to speakers of English, which has 11 basic color terms, plus many non-basic ones (Berlin…